Travelling through north-east Thailand

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First published 19th June, 2006

The northeast region of Thailand (better known as Isaan) might be hot and dry, but with the lure of Khmer temples John Rowell doesn't mind getting dust on his shoes.

We have decided to explore the near north-eastern region of Isaan, an area of Thailand that does not have the usual lush picture postcard image. We have come primarily to see the famous lost temples, legacy of the Khmers, who ruled the area for over 600 years.

Isaan is the driest and poorest area in Thailand, and the source of most of Bangkok's itinerant workers because farmers here only get one rice crop a year and are forced to look elsewhere for income.

On the way our driver suggests a detour to Phra Puttabut, near Lopburi. A folk tale relates that 350 years ago a deer hunter came across a pond shaped like a large human foot -- an omen that it was a holy site -- and a temple was erected.

The ornate representation of the Buddha's foot shows the 108 laksana or characteristics of a Buddha. For us an added attraction is the large collection of bronze bells which on invitation we happily whack with large sticks for good luck, just like kids.

Close by is the monastery of Tham Krabok, a unique community where the monks take in drug addicts desperate to reform. Wandering around -- we are escorted by a tall Afro-American monk from Brooklyn -- is a sobering experience.

In-patients and volunteers construct additions and hill-tribe villagers from the Golden Triangle gesture imploringly from barred windows in one block. Cultivators of the opium poppy, these people easily become addicted and are the saddest victims of all.

We pass through Khorat -- also dry and dusty -- and head to Phimai, former vice regal centre and terminus of the Royal Road that led from the fabled ancient city of Angkor in Cambodia. When Angkor crumbled around the 14th century, Phimai and other outposts of empire withered and died.

Jayavarman VII, last of the great Khmer kings, built Phimai in the 12th century and had it laid out facing Angkor, like all the Khmer satellite cities. A Buddhist convert, he imposed its themes alongside scenes from the Hindu Ramayana.

Surmounted by an impressive prang or tower, the central white sandstone sanctuary gleams in the sun, testament to the genius of the ancient Khmer builders -- and years of patient restoration. Outside the complex a local community goes about everyday business, giving the feeling that somehow Phimai lives on in an echo of empire.

We are not prepared for the overwhelming grandeur of the next stop on our quest -- Prasat Phnom Rung. Perched high on the core of an extinct volcano, it is the most spectacular Khmer site in Thailand.

Starting along a processional way, we climb a series of staircases flanked by giant five-headed nagas or sacred snakes, moving upwards as intended in ancient times from the physical world into the divine.

The temple's area is a series of compounds, ponds and sanctuaries, drawing the visitor towards the great central sanctuary with its mighty prang. The antechamber just before this has its own story -- modern rather than ancient -- as the beautifully decorated lintel above the doorway was stolen in the 1960s, ending up in Chicago.

After Thai government complaints, a massive injection of money from American interests and a protest campaign by a Thai rock group, it was restored in 1988. Now it can be seen in all its glory -- a celebration of the Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses.

Seeking art of a different kind, we press on eastward to the border and Pa Taem, high on sheer cliffs overlooking Laos. Acutely aware of the heat, our driver sensibly waits under an umbrella while we explore. With the Mekong River coursing below, we wander along paths under the cliff-top and come across a dazzling series of prehistoric rock paintings.

Fish-traps, buffalo, elephants and giant catfish parade along the cliff walls. The ravages of time and water erosion result in these early images being so high up and the river so far below.

Ubon Ratchathani, our final stop before our flight back to Bangkok, is a pleasant place to wind down. Boosted by a U.S. base during the Vietnam War, the city's main claim to fame nowadays is that of a gateway to heavily forested parks and its proximity to Laos and Cambodia.

Strolling around, we are intrigued by the surreal safety promotion of a painted zebra patiently waiting to cross -- at a zebra crossing, naturally. After the grandeur of Khmer temples and a prehistoric art gallery, we are forcibly reminded of everyday absurdities with a jolt.

John Rowell is an Australian freelance travel writer who has had a love affair with Asian culture for many years. Particular interests include the history, culture and cuisine of the countries he visits. You can read more of his travel writing here.

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